Medical marijuana is not a simple issue

Medical marijuana poses an intractable quandary. The issue could be described as zero-tolerance versus, well, tolerance. Floating elusively between the two – and genuinely hard to pin down — is common sense.

The issue affects employers and people with various health conditions who would like to work. And an undetermined number of New Mexico schoolchildren with serious health issues.

As of June 2018, almost 55,000 patients were enrolled in the legal medical cannabis program in New Mexico, according to Jenna Burt of the New Mexico Department of Health. They become eligible if they are diagnosed with one of several qualifying conditions. For some of those people, this is lifesaving medicine.

But can they keep their jobs if they are using medical marijuana?

For years, New Mexico employers have been urged to adopt zero-tolerance policies regarding drugs that could impair workers’ ability to function safely. That’s good, right? Employees who are under the influence of hazardous medication, legal or not, pose a risk to themselves, their fellow employees, and possibly the public.

At what point does marijuana cause a person to be impaired, and how can you tell? If someone is using marijuana for a medical purpose, how does it affect that person’s capabilities? We do not have a reliable scientific way to measure that. And the trouble with measuring marijuana in the blood is that marijuana stays detectable for several days, long after the mental effects have dissipated.

The situation is perhaps more tragic for schoolchildren. Specific strains of cannabis have been hailed as the only medicine that works for some children with epilepsy and other conditions. But marijuana is prohibited from school grounds by federal law, and school personnel are not allowed to administer it. So those children are stuck: they can’t function without their medicine but they can’t have it in school, even if a parent comes to administer the dose.

We don’t know how many New Mexico children have these conditions. New Mexico Department of Health statistics show the total number of registered medical cannabis users under 18 is 123, with 45 of these using it for epilepsy, 50 for post-traumatic stress and the remainder for other conditions.

One Albuquerque school official commented that if children use cannabis at home and no effects show up in school, the school would not know. She implied the school would not need to intervene in that case. But according to parent and advocate Ginger Grider of Portales, the need for a dose of cannabis can arise at any time.

Grider said cannabis is the only product that works for her children with autism. She said people with autism experience constant sensory overload, unable to block reactions to stimuli like sound and light. Cannabis reduces the sensitivity so they can function more normally.

Grider said once cannabis is allowed in school, thousands of New Mexico parents with autistic children will want to let their children use it.

Grider is active in the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Patients Advocates Alliance, which is in process of organizing as a legal nonprofit.

Federal law still categorizes marijuana as a dangerous drug with no acceptable medicinal value. That categorization, which has severely limited research, has been clearly demonstrated to be wrong. Cannabis has proven to be beneficial, possibly lifesaving, for a number of serious health conditions, and in some cases as a preferred alternative to opioids for pain.

In May 2018 a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill that would encourage the Department of Veterans Affairs to research cannabis as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and other chronic pain. The next necessary step is the complete removal of barriers to research, so methods can be developed to let all those people go to work and school.


Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2018


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